tagSci-Fi & FantasyDream Drive Ch. 09

Dream Drive Ch. 09

byOver_Red©

Author's Note:

Edited by Expoh, AnnabelleFalls13, Michael Scott, and Zald.


****


It had been a good handful of hours since Jackson had gone with Shaka into the mountain. Chaki was sitting at the campfire outside her family's tipi. Landri sat with her. Palla was sleeping inside.

The night was cold, so they brought out a blanket to cover themselves. It was sewn from the skins of two coyotes that Chaki's father had baited and killed: one a mix of tan and white, the other mostly brown. She rubbed the fur idly. It was soft. It reminded her of his warmth.

She glanced up. Her father's war jacket hung from the top of their tipi; it looked streaked with black and red from the light of the fire. She didn't like the sight of it in the dark, and turned her eyes away.

Her bond with Jackson pointed toward the mountain, but not long after he'd left, it had changed. She could barely feel him. It was as if she could see him in the distance, standing a mile away on the plains, but they were so far that even their loudest shouts could only be faintly heard. The little nuances of his soul - the steel walls, the heated core, the crumbling patches of rust – all of it was gone.

"You should try to get some sleep," Landri said.

Chaki shook her head.

"He'll be fine. Shaka will protect him with her life."

Chaki nodded.

Landri embraced Chaki with an arm, bringing her close. "Jackson is strong. He'll be back in the morning, and I'll finally have you out of my tent."

"Mmm-hmm."

"Come," Landri said. "Perk up."

"I'm just..." Chaki reached for their bond.

She felt nothing. Her eyes widened. She hunted desperately, reaching a mental hand into the place her essence sat. A sick feeling began to rise in her throat.

And then it was there, a tiny, golden thread. She clutched it as if holding her essence, ready to draw a rune. She was afraid to let go.

"He's never been this far away before," Chaki said. "If something happens, then I won't be able to –"

"He will speak with Shakhan," Landri said. "He will learn of his mission. He will return here. And that will be that."

"Yes."

That was what Chaki said, but she didn't think it would be so simple. If Jackson had to leave...would she leave with him? He already seemed to be thinking about that day, considering a future in which they would have to support one another in conflict, in violence, if need be.

It was madness. Leap away with a warrior on an adventure, leave everything she'd ever known behind - friends, family, her life on the plains. What would her tribe do without their next spirit guide? Shaka was still strong, but she was aging. Would she have time to train another in Chaki's stead?

A wind blew. Chaki pushed close to her mother. Landri used one hand to fix the blanket around them, shielding them from the cold air. The firelight flickered. She could hear the sound of hooves in the distance.

The hooves rapidly grew closer. A heavy, rhythmic thud in the grass.

Closer.

Chaki and Landri exchanged a glance.

A horse galloped into view from the darkness. In an instant, it blew past them, smashing straight through the campfire and sending coals flying. Chaki brought the blanket over their faces; she could feel the flecks of heat batter against them.

They heard the horse give a pained and tired whinny. Wood snapped, crunched. Chaki threw the blanket off. Their tent was half-collapsed, trampled by the horse. The animal reared up, eyes wide, wheezing big, slavering breaths. And then it took off again, running deeper into the camp.

"Palla!" Landri shouted. "Palla!"

"What – who – what's –" Chaki saw motion under the tipi's leather. Palla batted his way free and stuck his head out. "What happened? Is it a storm?"

Landri sighed in relief. "Thank goodness."

"There was someone on that horse," Chaki said. "I'm going after it!"

She took off at a run. Strewn possessions and torn-up tent stakes followed in the wake of the maddened beast. Other people were gathering, throwing open their tents to see about the commotion.

When she caught up to the animal, it had crashed into yet another tent. Now it was bucking, kicking up its rear legs again and again. Chaki watched the animal carefully, trying to look for some way to get close, but it was too unpredictable. Its face was wild; it seemed unfocused. Was it in pain?

Her eyes widened. There was a person tied to it – a small figure, swathed in black, strapped to the horse like a human saddle.

"Surround it!" shouted a voice. "If it tries to run again, use force!"

Hanta was there, along with Vuntha and several of the other men. Yukatan was leading them. The elder's head was bald to the night, having rushed from his tent without his headdress.

They circled the horse with their spears. The horse kept bucking, but it stayed in place, torn between dealing with what had it panicked and keeping away from the sharp spear points.

The elder crept closer. The horse had stopped for a moment; its great bulk stretched as it heaved air. As Yukatan reached for its reins, he had to lower his spear – and immediately the horse lashed out, whipping its head at him. The elder was sent tumbling backward.

Chaki and Vuntha grabbed him under the arms and quickly drew him away, setting him back on his feet. He brushed himself off and set his spear again. Hanta called from the other side of the horse. "Elder, are you alright?"

"I'm fine!" he said. "Chaki, can you calm it? Like Shaka?"

"I will try." Chaki gripped her soul tight and began to draw runes. Simple pictures, one for slumber, one for calm, one for horse. Bright gold lines arranged themselves into pictograms in front of her. She walked forward, holding them out like a shield, and pushed her magic into the spell.

The horse stopped bucking. Its eyes focused on Chaki, but its breathing was still labored. "It's alright," Chaki said. "I am a friend. You're in a safe place now."

She slowly touched the flank of the horse. It whinnied, skipped with its feet slightly. She laid her head on its side. "Shh. It's okay. You will be fine."

The horse's breathing began to slow. She glanced at Yukatan and nodded. Yukatan held up three fingers; he and two others lowered their spears and approached.

"There is a metal spur stabbed into its hind," Hanta said. "I can see the blood."

Yukatan and the third man – Boonta, Chaki saw - worked to untie the person on the horse. "What is the meaning of this?" he said. "Why didn't they simply ride?"

"Chaki, can you prepare it for pain?" Hanta said. "I want to withdraw the spur."

"I'm running out of essence," she said. "Wait until they are away."

Yukatan and Boonta slung the unconscious rider off the horse and carried them out of their circle. Chaki drew an extra few runes. Her essence immediately started draining faster. "Now," she said. She ran her hand along the horse's mane and spoke softly. "Please tolerate this. It will hurt, just briefly."

Hanta's hands were quick. The horse jerked, whinnied. Chaki hugged its neck, whispering soothing words near its ear. Once Hanta was clear, she stopped her push into the spell.

The horse's legs began to tremble. With the source of pain removed, it promptly laid down in the grass. Foam ringed its lips; it had been running for a long time. She released her runes, then drew new ones, expending the last dribble of her essence to seal the gash. It was just a patched scab, really, but better than leaving it totally open. The horse laid its head down in the grass and closed its eyes.

"It's a woman!"

Chaki gave the horse one last pat, then hurried to where they had set down the stranger. She was a tiny, thin girl. Streamers of yellow-blonde hair played from her head and over the grass.

Chaki kneeled next to her. "I know her. I know this girl."

Everyone looked at Chaki. "Explain," Yukatan said.

"She is an acquaintance of Jackson Vedalt." Chaki remembered when he looked her up, back when they visited Earth. Ray-something...Rachel! That was her name. She was the person he'd met in the rattok cave. "Which means..."

Chaki peeled the black glove off the girl's left hand. Unlike Chaki's neat tattoo, her mark of Shakhan was a twisted, spidery thing - like Jackson's – melted into the flesh.

"She came from the iron men," Boonta said. His eyes were wide; his jaw was set tight. "She's wearing their clothing."

"She is a warrior of Shakhan, like Jackson," Chaki said.

"Then she's just as dangerous," Boonta said.

"Jackson is our friend," Vuntha said.

"My point exactly," Boonta said. "We don't need any more friends like him, unbalanced fools that flaunt their powers."

"Enough, Boonta," Yukatan said. "You've made more than enough trouble on that front." Somewhat cowed, Boonta sat back on his heels and huffed. "Chaki, what's wrong with her? Why doesn't she wake?"

Chaki inspected Rachel more closely. Her eyes were red, puffy, as if she'd been crying. Her eyelids were shifting. Chaki peeled one of them back. Rachel's eye twitched erratically, like someone in a deep dream, but it was too fast, too strong. She went to check her pulse.

Chaki's fingertips were shocked with a harsh stinging pain. She drew back, hissing. A wooden collar tucked under Rachel's clothes flashed with embedded runes. Rachel's body tensed, then fell slack.

"This collar is embedded with magic," Chaki said. "It struck at me when I grew close. Perhaps they were holding her prisoner with it?"

"Why would they do that?" Vuntha said. "Collar a human, of all things?"

"The iron men treat people like animals, when it suits them," Chaki said. "I experienced it firsthand."

"And what if she was acting like a wild animal?" Boonta said. "They might have collared her for their own safety. I don't trust Shakhan's power in the hands of outsiders."

"You sympathize with the iron men too much," Chaki said. "No one should be treated like this."

"Regardless of the reason why," Yukatan said, "it was done. Chaki, what is the collar doing to her?"

"I'm not sure," Chaki said. "Keeping her like this – a feigned sleep?"

"That makes sense," Hanta said. "She couldn't remove the collar, so she tied herself to her horse and forced it to run. She knew it would put her to sleep when she tried to escape from her masters."

"Which would indicate," Chaki said, looking at Boonta, "that she is no friend of theirs. Perhaps she was trying to reach Jackson."

"We can't trust her," Boonta said. He moved to the center of their group. "Not until she explains herself, anyway."

"She is Jackson's friend," Chaki said. "He spoke well of her."

"And sacred law dictates that all those not of the tribes that approach the mountain shall be killed," Boonta said, "but I'm not advocating for her execution, am I?"

"Then what are you advocating?"

"This is a matter of Shakhan," Boonta said. "We must wait for Shaka and the other spirit guides to advise us."

Chaki stood and faced him. "I think I'm perfectly capable of –"

"You're an apprentice," Boonta said. He looked at his father. "We should isolate her in a tent, and set a guard within it. When Shaka returns, she will know what to do. As it is my idea, I am happy to take the first watch." Boonta lowered his head. "I believe I have a great deal of ground to recover in Shaka's eyes. Please allow me this, that I might begin, in that regard."

Yukatan nodded. "Your suggestion is a good one."

What Boonta said wasn't unreasonable. They didn't really know Rachel; they didn't know if they could absolutely trust her. But it didn't sit right with Chaki. She saw a river snake maneuvering about for some sort of advantage. Yukatan only saw his son trying to make amends.

Chaki looked at Hanta for help. Hanta caught her gaze, then duly cleared his throat. "Perhaps, as Boonta has strong feelings concerning the matter, I or another might make a better guard?"

"Are you saying my son is unable to calmly watch a slumbering girl?" Yukatan asked.

"I'm not commenting on his ability," Hanta said, "only his state of mind and spirit."

Boonta scowled. "My mind is sound, hunter, and my spirit sounder still."

"Is that so?" Yukatan said. "It seems to me that my son is in an especially poor state of being, considering that talking back to his elders is exactly the kind of idiocy that he needs to correct. Starting now!"

Boonta winced. Chaki watched as the deliberation wound its way across Yukatan's features. On one side was his son; and on the other side was his son. She did not like Yukatan much, but she respected him. She did not envy his position.

Yukatan looked at Boonta. "I will trust you with this responsibility. You will guard the girl. You will not do anything further to sully yourself."

Boonta didn't hide a tight smile. "Yes, Father."

"And perhaps, for demonstrating that you possess more wisdom than Shaka currently believes, she will not skin you alive when she returns."

Boonta's expression faltered. "Yes, Father."

"Set her in my spare tent," Yukatan said. "Check through the camp, and make sure all were unharmed. Chaki?"

Chaki's teeth were still grinding from Yukatan's pronouncement, but she managed a nod. "I will heal anyone who was hurt."

"Thank you. Hanta and Vuntha, come with me. We need to gather the elders."

"So late?" Vuntha said. "This might wait until morning. Rested heads are better."

"It can't wait," Hanta said, starting after Yukatan. "That horse was dead tired from running, but it couldn't have come across the entire plain."

"What does that mean?" Vuntha asked.

"It means," Yukatan said, "that she was probably not alone."

****


Tell'ad's throat worked, but no sound came out. He lay on the ground inside Hale's tent. His face was pushed into a pool of churned up grass and his own bile. He'd long since vomited up everything else.

He was in a strange state of being. Hale had done something to his collar, forced his mind to stay aware when he normally would've blacked out. He'd gone so far into the pain that it had stopped hurting. It wasn't unlike running one's hands under scalding water for so long that the sensation simply faded. Even though the flesh started to poach like an egg, the nerves had made themselves hoarse shouting at the arms to move, and their voices grew weaker and weaker.

"How long," Hale said, pacing back toward him, "have you concealed this from me?"

Tell'ad really did the best he could, but the air wouldn't come out.

The pain lessened slightly, which was bad, because that let Tell'ad feel it again. His jaw clenched up. His teeth hurt from being ground together for so long.

He'd gone back to his tent and tried to ride it out, but eventually one of his men had come looking for him and saw him twitching on the ground. And then Hale started wondering where Rachel was.

Hale's face came into view. He'd knelt on the ground. "How long, commander?"

"Hour," Tell'ad managed. "May...two."

"One or two hours?" Hale said. "Your pain tolerance has really gone up over the years."

Hale stood again, then delivered a sharp kick to Tell'ad's groin.

Pain exploded between his legs, amplified by the effect of the collar. Tell'ad could feel his thoughts scramble up. His vision warped and swam. The rest of his senses were drowned by the volume of pain.

He only vaguely heard Hale's voice. "Captain Hammond!"

"Yes sir."

"Rouse the troops. We're attacking immediately. How long to the mountain?"

"Three hours if we push, but the men will be tired."

"Give them a half hour break after the first two hours. Double rations for breakfast. I don't want surprise ruined by exhaustion."

"Yes sir."

Footsteps. Tell'ad felt his clothes shift – Hale had grabbed them. Their eyes met again, his against Hale's cold, hunting gaze. "If my plans for Rachel are upset by this one last little rebellion of yours," Hale said, "I will make you beg to feel like you do now. You won't deny me a second time, Kaid! Do you hear me?!"

Tell'ad was flung back to the grass. He rolled once, limbs lifeless, eyes squeezed shut against the pain.

For a moment, the name Hale shouted swam in his head. He saw faces – he knew them as his family. There was a girl, a young woman. Delicate of frame, with shining blonde hair down to her waist. His sister.

An odd thought rose up from the pain like a piece of driftwood bobbing to the surface. Lady Ransfeld reminded him of his sister.

****


Jackson's Statistics:

Strength - 100 +10 (+10%)

Vitality - 185 +19 (+10%)

Agility - 50 +3 (+5%)

Compulsion - 0

Persuasion – 0

Spirit - 80 +20 (+25%)

Health – 248.00/248.00

Essence – 120 + 151

Carry Weight – 28.4/59.0


****


Jackson ducked under the archway leading out from the portal room. His silvery rune cast a small orb of light around him. The sigil floated where he'd drawn it, moving relative to his position, like a little moon orbiting planet Jackson.

The walls were black, and the floor under his feet was black, and the ceiling was black. It felt like walking through space. He brushed his left hand on the wall. It felt cold, but smooth.

His spear was in his right hand. The Energy Conversion Cannon dangled from his belt, the strange grey gun with a claw-butted barrel. He had full health, plenty of essence on-hand, and more essence stored into the gemstones in his pockets that Chaki had charged up for him.

Chaki was more than happy to temporarily become his personal essence charging station. He couldn't use the light blue essence he acquired from her to increase his base stats, but it freed him up to use the dark blue essence he'd earned from slaying enemies to do just that while still keeping a reserve for his special attacks.

He had put another 40 essence into Spirit, hedging against bleeding out anything extra. Considering he was going somewhere serious, he also wanted the added benefit of extra magic resistance. That left him with 127 essence, so he added 7 to Agility, nicely rounding it out at 50 points and his total dark essence at 120 points.

He decided to keep 120 as a reserve. It was a lot to have on hand, but Jackson still hadn't felt much benefit from his base statistics. Vitality definitely helped him during the mountain games, but he was still exhausted relatively quickly, panting his lungs out as he ran from one place to another. Magic couldn't overturn a lifetime spent tinkering on desks with a few points here and there. His skills – both active and passive – had proved far more useful in terms of immediate survival.

Still, he probably would have dumped all the essence he had into his attributes if it wasn't for the fact that charging his essence crystals had been extremely tiring on Chaki. The efficiency was low, so she had to push far more essence in than what he received in return. At one point, they'd felt something weaken in their bond - not as if it was fading away, but a flickering, like a flashlight turning on and off. Jackson urged her to rest, and the bond returned to normal after she'd sat down and had something to eat.

Jackson hypothesized that a tiny bit of Chaki's magic was used to keep the bond active, and repeatedly dumping and gathering essence drained her past her ability to maintain it. The game's screens had been clear that a bond could only end with death, so it was probably just a transient condition. All the same, he didn't want to push it, or her, too far. Chaki wasn't one to complain; despite looking more than a little haggard, she'd wanted to continue. He'd insisted she'd done enough until she gave up asking.

If he was honest to himself, he felt a tad guilty. He hadn't intended things to go that far. Even if the bond was fine, she wasn't a machine. Cycling essence through herself over and over like that wasn't healthy.

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